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Under Further Review – Canucks Top Ten Prospects – For all the Canuck fans out there with time on their hands, we thought we would provide some content for you. The Athletic recently ranked the top ten prospects in the Canucks system. Since the Athletic is a subscription service, we pulled the information on their site so you can have a look for yourself.  Here’s a rundown on the Canucks top ten prospects.

  1. Vasili Podkolzin, RW, SKA St. Petersburg (KHL)

10th overall, 2019
6-foot-1, 192 pounds
2019-20 statistics: 30 G, 2 G, 6 A, 8P

Opportunity was the name of the game for Vasili Podkolzin. In the first half of the year, he didn’t get it – averaging less than six minutes per game as SKA’s 13th forward and going pointless through his first 19 KHL games. He was shuttled up and down leagues and spent modestly successful time in the second-tier VHL and junior circuit MHL as he was caught in a frustrating spin cycle of transfers that had him adapting to new circumstances on a seemingly weekly basis.

All that changed when Podkolzin returned from the world juniors in January. And the offensive production soon followed. United with WJC teammates Ivan Morozov and Kirill Marchenko, Podkolzin carved out a regular role on a bottom-six scoring line and caught fire with 11 points in his final 17 contests, which included three points in four playoff games before the season was suspended. “He’s an 18-year-old kid playing in the KHL, that’s a man’s league, a tough league,” Benning said. “He played on a good team, and maybe earlier on in the year he didn’t get the ice time and with the ice time the confidence that comes with developing as a player. “I thought he was really good at the world juniors, played the style of game we think he’s capable of playing – that power forward game, protecting the puck, taking the puck to the net and making plays down low.”

Podkolzin can be an offensive force when he couples speed and power with his slick hands. He’s a handful to contain when driving wide on the rush and displayed underrated vision and playmaking ability as the season wore on. Even more impressive than that was just how advanced his two-way game was for an 18-year-old in one of hockey’s toughest men’s leagues. Podkolzin’s underlying numbers were dominant and it wouldn’t surprise us if he developed into an upper-echelon shutdown winger in addition to his offensive value.

“He plays responsible for a young kid, his two-way game, his details in his game are really good,” Benning said. “Then he went back (after the world juniors) and they played him with two other young players on a line and that line might’ve been one of the best lines in the league the last couple of months. “I think over the course of the year he worked hard, things weren’t going good for him early and he didn’t have his confidence but he kept working, worked his way through it and by the end of the year I thought he was playing really good.”

  1. Nils Höglander, LW, Rögle BK (SHL)

40th overall, 2019
5-foot-9, 190 pounds
2019-20 statistics: 41 G, 9 G, 7 A, 16 P

It’s not often that the odds are stacked in favour of a 5-foot-9 forward. But Hoglander’s not your average forward prospect. The 19-year-old already has years of experience playing against men under his belt, is described as a “freak” by teammates and coaches in terms of his strength and fitness and has the relentless motor and drive to battle in the inside areas.

It’s not that those are his strongest tools, but they’re the attributes that inspire confidence that he’ll scratch and claw his way to a top-nine forward role in the NHL one day, despite his smaller stature. “He’s a competitive, hardworking kid. He’s the type of kid that coaches like to have on the bench, that type of kid that you know is going to work and compete every shift,” said Benning. “He’s got the skill, protects the puck, and plays the game the right way. “For him, it’s going to be the adjustment to the North American game and the things he needs to do to figure out the size, the strength and the speed of the players. Once he makes those adjustments, I think he’s going to be a really good player.”

Offensively, the tantalizing skill is obvious. He owns arguably the best hands of any player from the 2019 draft class which operates in conjunction with his explosive edge work to make him an elusive and slippery player. It remains to be seen where Höglander plays next year after signing an entry-level contract that includes a European out clause. “That’ll be up to him to determine. He’ll come to training camp and we’ve said all along that if players deserve to be on the team, we’ll make room for them and I think we’ve done that through the years,” Benning said. “If he comes in and is ready to play, we’ll find a spot for him. If he needs some development time – whether in Utica or back home in Sweden – that will have to be determined after we see where he’s at compared to other NHL players.”

  1. Jack Rathbone, D, Harvard (NCAA)

95th overall, 2017
5-foot-10, 176 pounds
2019-20 statistics: 28 GP, 7 G, 24 A, 31 P

We originally had Rathbone ranked second on this list, but every scout or prospect expert we consulted disagreed. Consensus industry opinion ranks Nils Höglander above Rathbone. Rathbone has high-end feet, a wicked shot and aggressive offensive instincts from the back end. Those are primetime attributes, tailor-made to translate effectively at the NHL level. “The things I like about him is he’s a really good skater, carries the puck up ice, he’s aggressive in wanting to create offence from the blue line,” Benning said. “He has the skill set to do that.”

There’s no doubt among Boston-area scouts and close observers that Rathbone has the skill set to be a productive NHL defender with top-four upside. He could hit that upside quickly too, based on the maturity of his game. If there’s a lingering skepticism about whether he gets there or not, however, it tends to focus on whether he processes the game well enough to limit mistakes and be effective defensively against NHL-level competition. “I think that’s the one part of his game that he’s going to continue to learn and get better at,” Benning said. “Sometimes college hockey is so wide open, offensive, it’s an end-to-end game … The parts of his game that he needs to work on – he knows that, we’ve talked to him about that, his coaches at Harvard have talked to him about it – he’s going to work at it and keep getting better at it. The things he has though, you can’t teach.”

And of course, there’s always the signing question when it comes to NCAA players. The Canucks have done quality work signing drafted players that go through the college ranks, but it’s a tricky business. These are players that have more leverage than the average draft pick.

Rathbone’s situation is particularly complicated. Not only does he have the ability to withdraw a year early and opt to become an Aug. 15 free agent following his junior season, but the pandemic has thrown an additional wrinkle into his consideration set. “Rathbone’s goal is to make the Canucks roster if he signs, but the future starting dates for the AHL is playing a role in NCAA players signing or not. A source at Harvard says if Rathbone signs with the Canucks, what happens if he does not make the Canucks and the AHL does not start on time next year? That puts Rathbone in a tough spot if there is no hockey in Utica. For that reason, it is better for Rathbone to get more information about all leagues next year before he makes his decision to sign. And that could take a long time to get clarity about next year.”

The Canucks have time to wait. They’re not concerned by the prospect of him returning to school, despite his relatively unique status. Admittedly, though, they suspect Rathbone may wait an additional year before turning pro. “I’ve had conversations with his family representative and that’s going to be up to Jack and his family,” Benning said. “He just finished his second year, I think probably he’ll go back and play one more year at Harvard. “We’ve had conversations and he’s going to talk it over with his family and stuff and once we have a better idea coming through all of this, we’ll call him back and get his final answer. For him to go play another year isn’t the end of the world, if that’s what he wants to do, we’ll try to get him signed at this time next year. We’re just waiting to see what happens with COVID-19 and the decision that he makes.”

  1. Kole Lind, RW, Utica Comets (AHL)

33rd overall, 2017
6-foot-1, 179 pounds
2019-20 statistics: 61 GP, 14 G, 30A, 44P

Kole Lind’s first go-around in pro hockey did not go as planned last year. He struggled offensively, was in and out of the lineup and battled a couple of injuries. It was an eye-opening experience; a harsh reality check.

Motivated by his first year struggles, Lind came back as a revolutionized player this season. He exploded with 10 points in his first 12 games and finished with the type of minor-league production that is in line with that of a top prospect. “I see him as a top-nine guy, maybe he’s not a top-six guy, but he worked on his skating, got physically stronger and while his point production was up this year, so was his overall play,” Benning said. “There were times we were short on centres and Trent used him at centre, and he never looked out of place. He played some centre, played wing on the power play, he can shoot the puck.

“We got a look this season of the type of player he’s going to develop into. He still needs to keep getting stronger and improving his first-step quickness, but he’s a competitive kid, can shoot the puck and took really positive steps this year toward being an NHL player.” Lind sees the ice well, is a strong finisher from in-tight and excels playing in straight lines. He’s become much stronger in puck battles and has developed a little bit of snarl to his game too. The question that remains for Lind is one of upside – will his offensive tools be dynamic enough to suit a middle-six role at the highest level? “He improved a lot, but I’m not really sure what his identity is,” an AHL evaluator said. “Is he a bottom-six guy that can bring some offence? I’m not really sure if he’s a top-six guy.”

  1. Michael DiPietro, G, Utica Comets (AHL)

64th overall, 2017
6-foot, 202 pounds
2019-20 statistics: 36 GP, 21-11-3, .908 SV%, 2.79 GAA

Michael DiPietro robbed shooters, stole games and was among the Utica Comets’ most consistent players in a revelatory rookie season in professional hockey. The 20-year-old goaltender is listed at 6-foot, which a bit undersized in the context of modern NHL goaltenders; goaltending platoons tend to rival NBA shooting guard depth charts for height these days. But what DiPietro lacks in stature, he’s so far been able to make up for with high-end lateral speed, an unrivalled work ethic and a level of character that his junior coaches, national team coaches, development coaches and management at the professional ranks rave about.

“He’s a 6-foot goalie, but he’s got long arms. And he’s strong coming across from one side to the other. He’s got strong legs and he can come across fast,” Canucks general manager Jim Benning said. “His biggest asset is that he’ll never quit on a puck.”

Benning, in particular, launches into a lengthy description of a save that left an indelible impression on him. “I was at a game in Laval and a guy had a wide-open net, he came diving across and made an unbelievable save,” Benning said. “The guy thought he had an open net. Just a typical calling card save. Until the puck crosses the line, he’s not giving up on it.”

DiPietro assumed the starter’s role in Utica relatively early in his first AHL season, and never really relinquished it. He was the youngest goaltender in the American League to appear in at least 35 games. And he managed a roughly average save percentage, all of which augers very well for his future as a goaltending prospect. “With his attitude and love of the game, I just see him getting better and better,” Benning said. “People can maybe criticize his size but I think he’ll find a way to be an NHL goalie.”

  1. Jett Woo, RD, Calgary Hitmen

37th overall, 2018
6-feet, 205 pounds
2019-20 statistics: 64GP, 7G-39A-46P

After a breakout season where he garnered 12 goals and 66 points in 62 games, Jett Woo’s offensive production took a notable hit in his draft-plus two campaign. Much of that decline can be attributed to the change in environment that came with a trade to the Calgary Hitmen. There were far fewer opportunities in prime offensive situations and he didn’t have the benefit of lining up alongside Josh Brook, one of the WHL’s highest-scoring defencemen in 2018-19, as he did in Moose Jaw. “Two seasons ago he had a real good offensive season, I thought,” Benning said. “I don’t necessarily know if that’s going to be his game at the NHL level. There was an adjustment period for him playing on a new team, new city, different teammates, new coaches. The first couple of months he was feeling his way around, but after that from mid-November on he was good.”

The lower point totals certainly won’t concern Woo, who emphasized just how much he prides himself on his defensive game when his offensive pop was mentioned at prospects camp last fall. His calling card will be as an abrasive, physical defenceman who wins 1-on-1 battles and makes life tough on opposing forwards. Woo fits the prototype of a throwback defenceman, but what makes him projectable for the contemporary NHL are his competent all-round tools. The right-shot defender owns decent mobility and can pick up above-average steam with his skating stride for a heavier player. He won’t carry the puck on breakouts but reliably makes tape-to-tape outlet passes. Moreover, he flashes decent vision from the offensive blue line in how he probes for slap pass options like this one that leads to an assist.

“He was solid, playing physical, moving the puck and doing the things he can do to help a team win,” Benning said of Woo’s season. “He’s a high-character kid who plays the game hard and physical, he has the ability to play in today’s game with the way defensemen need to play, but he plays with an edge.”

  1. Olli Juolevi, LD, Utica Comets

5th overall, 2016
6-foot-2, 183 pounds
2019-20 statistics: 45GP, 2G-23A-25P

In his first season back from major knee surgery, Olli Juolevi managed to play in 45 games for the Comets. He put up decent numbers from the back end while stepping into a bigger role for the Comets on the penalty kill and continuing to play major minutes. The Comets were careful with ‘load management’ with Juolevi, giving him the odd extra practice day off. And he missed a chunk of time with a mysterious injury scare in the late fall.

Overall though, while no one would say Juolevi took a significant step and it wasn’t reasonable to expect one considering the severity of the surgical procedure he underwent in the spring of 2019, it was a decent bounce-back campaign for the 2016 top-five pick. He avoided any significant injuries and the historical comparables remain bullish on him. Around the industry, opinion is split on Juolevi’s prospect stock. It’s tough to find anyone that still sees the top-end offensive game that made him such a high draft pick in 2016, but while some talent evaluators we spoke with don’t expect him to be an impactful NHLer at this point, some still have a high opinion of his competitiveness and on-ice awareness.

“In talking to the coaches and seeing him play this year, I thought he had a good season,” Benning said. “First and foremost, he’s a competitive kid. He wants to do well. He’s had some bad luck with injuries the last couple of years, but he put in a lot of work this summer and I think it showed up in his game. His strength was good. When he’s got the puck on his stick and his head’s up, he knows where everyone on the ice is and he can make that long pass to spring forwards and get the puck going the other way.”

The concern with Juolevi, especially early in the year as he worked his way back from his knee surgery, was his skating, particularly his ability to pivot and defend off of the rush. Close observers, including The Athletic’s Corey Pronman, insist that Juolevi’s movement isn’t an issue. “I’ve talked to his agent about things he needs to continue to work at to get better and it’s… the pivots off of the rush, his mobility, continuing to improve and work at that,” Benning said. “If he can improve there, he’s got all the qualities to be a top-four defenceman in the NHL.”

  1. Brogan Rafferty, RD, Utica Comets

Undrafted signing
6-foot-3, 191 pounds
2019-20 statistics: 57GP, 7G-38A-45P

Third among all AHL defenceman in points this season, Rafferty’s transition to pro hockey was seamless and impressive. It’s crucial, of course, to contextualize these gaudy numbers with his advanced age – he’ll turn 25 later this month – which presents something of a double-edged sword. The positive is that he could provide immediate help for a Canucks roster thin on right-defence, but it also means he’s a lot closer to his ceiling than many might imagine.

In terms of his profile, Rafferty is a fluid skater most effective with the puck on his stick. He can lead exits with both his feet and outlet passing ability and is excellent at making reads and finding the best distribution option in the offensive zone. Rafferty’s game exudes tremendous confidence as he’s not afraid to carry the puck end-to-end and loves to jump up in the play offensively. Spending time in the AHL allowed Rafferty to learn how to manage the risk-to-reward ratio with his approach. “I think R.J. and the coaches down there were just trying to get him to pick his spots, working with him so he knows that you don’t go every time, but you read the play, and if you know it’s the right time to go, then you go,” Benning said.

Another key to sticking as an NHL regular will be rounding out his defensive game. Rafferty isn’t a liability without the puck by any stretch of the imagination, but he needs to use his body more consistently as a method to defend, in addition to details with his neutral zone defending. “Where he still needs some work is on the rush, defending on the rush, his gap control, his mobility and stuff like that,” Benning said. “He’s improved on that. If we had some injuries on defence this year, we were going to try to get him up this year and get some games, get some experience and take a look at him. We were healthy so he never really got that opportunity, but I’m looking forward to seeing him when we get back going at training camp to see where he’s at because I think he’s close to being an NHL player.”

  1. Aidan McDonough, LW, Northeastern

195th overall, 2019
6-foot-3, 191 pounds
2019-20 statistics: 31GP, 11G-16A-27P

Undrafted his first time as an eligible player in 2018, McDonagh enjoyed a breakout offensive season in his first collegiate campaign. On a line with a dynamic talent in traded Canucks draft pick Tyler Madden – who raves about McDonough’s game – McDonough scored regularly, using a high velocity shot and a big frame at the net-front to produce at a solid rate for a 20-year-old in the NCAA. “He’s a late bloomer and these last couple of years his game has really taken a big step,” Benning said. “I thought he had a really good year this year and our hope is he goes back. Northeastern has a really good program, they do a really good job of developing players. We’re excited he’s in that program, they have good strength and conditioning people and we’ll continue to work with them.”

McDonough has a lot of tools and scored at a rate where his historical comparables would suggest that he’s got an outside shot at developing into a top-nine player at the NHL level. To continue to progress though, he’ll have to prove that he can score without a dynamic pivot feeding him pucks at even strength and on the power play. And like so many big-bodied, young forwards he’ll need to improve his foot speed, which is a lingering concern of some college scouts familiar with his game. It’s a concern the Canucks are aware of, but not one they share. “He’s a big strong kid, he’s got the size and strength,” Benning said. “I think he’s got a good stride and as he gets stronger, improves his leg strength, his skating is going to be fine.”

  1. Carson Focht, C, Calgary Hitmen (WHL)

133rd overall, 2019
6-foot-1, 181 pounds
2019-20 statistics: 61 GP, 32G, 24A, 56P

Drafted as an overager last summer, Focht impressed many in the organization with his style of play. The 20-year-old has a very mature, detail-oriented two-way game predicated on taking care of his own zone first. “He’s an older player, we kept him around because the coaches, like when they were on the ice with him during camp, whether it was Trent Cull or the assistants or Travis, they all noticed him because of his competitiveness,” Benning said. “He works hard, plays the game the right way – there are no shortcuts to his game – plays a 200-foot game, he’s got quickness to him, can get in on the forecheck, but gets back fast and hard on the defensive side.”

Focht is a traditional centre who drops very deep in the defensive end to support his defencemen below the hash marks – never cheats and consistently finds ways to leverage his size and reach to win pucks back in all three zones. He’s almost always on the right side of the puck and will endear himself to coaches as a centre who can kill penalties and play responsibly at even-strength.

Focht has a good release on his shot and uses his physicality to make plays on the inside, but he ultimately possesses limited offensive upside. He’s not someone you’d ask to transport the puck from zone to zone and despite encouraging vision in how he sees the ice, he doesn’t have the passing ability to get the puck from point A to point B. That will only become a greater challenge at the quicker pace of the pro-level and as such, Focht projects as a competitive, defensive-minded bottom-six centre if he makes the NHL. “He was one player that when you talked to the coaches about our young players they all bring him up because of his competitiveness and how hard he worked,” Benning said.

Honourable Mentions

Jack Malone, RW/C, Cornell University (NCAA)
180th overall, 2019
6-foot-1, 192 pounds
2019-20 statistics: 27 GP, 2G-6A-8P

Malone’s meagre counting stats aren’t suggestive of a promising forward prospect, but there are prominent scouts in the industry that have very high regard for his tools. The issue for Malone in his freshman year at Cornell is that the Big Red were a buzzsaw college team – ranked No. 1 in the nation when the NCAA season was cancelled – with a core group of veteran forwards, most of whom were at least two years his senior. He was essentially the 13th forward on the best team in college hockey. “He’s going to get a better opportunity next year,” Benning said. “He’s got some skill. With him, it’s just keep working hard and he’ll get a better opportunity and get more ice time next year.”

Arvid Costmar, C, Linköping (SuperElit J20)
215th overall, 2019
5-foot-11, 181 pounds
2019-20 statistics: 29 GP, 24G-26A-50P

A skilled Swedish-born forward, Costmar is the youngest player in the Canucks system. He played a few quiet games in the Allsvenskan and the SHL in his draft-plus one season but mostly spent time in the under-20 SuperElite league with Linköping’s J20 team.

Jonah Gadjovich, LW, Utica Comets
55th overall, 2017
6-foot-2, 209 pounds
2019-20 statistics: 38, 13G-4A-17P

A rugged winger, Gadjovich battled injuries in his sophomore season of professional hockey, but still improved his goal and point production significantly in fewer games than he played during a challenging rookie season in the American League. Gadjovich has some touch at the net front and a high work rate, but will need to upgrade his foot speed to take that next step as a prospect. “His skating keeps getting better, he keeps improving his speed,” Benning said. “He’s strong in the corner and in front of the net, but for him to take the next step of his game in the American League, and to have a chance to be an NHL player, it’s going to be about that first-step quickness and getting up to speed after two steps.”

William Lockwood, RW, University of Michigan 
64th overall, 2016
5-foot-11, 172 pounds
2019-20 statistics: 33GP 9G-14A-23P

After four seasons with the Michigan Wolverines, the Canucks earned Lockwood’s loyalty and got him signed in April. While Lockwood’s foot speed is high end, he’s struggled with injuries and hasn’t produced at a top prospect level during his collegiate career. He has some high-quality tools, but will need to round out his offensive game at the professional ranks to push for an NHL spot – even as an energy player – in the years to come.” He plays a high energy game, lots of courage, he’s fast,” Benning said. “He’s a prototypical new-age type of player, who can get in on the forecheck, is fast, can knock a guy off the puck. He plays an energy type of game with a good release on his shot.”